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Refugee, by Alan Gratz
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press

I finally made it through the l-o-n-g waiting list at my library and had the chance to read this astonishing novel. And I am here to tell you — I rarely outright cry when I read a book, but I was weeping at the close of this monumentally human story.

Alan Gratz weaves together three distinct stories of young refugees which span almost 80 years of the 20th and 21st centuries. Josef, a Jewish boy evading the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to escape the Castro regime by raft in 1994. And Mahmoud, who with his family flees the civil war in Syria in 2015.

Children from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

The nightmarish worlds each of these children finds him/herself in are presented here with the grim reality of shock, despair, intense grief, paralyzing fear, the relentless onslaught of another and yet another horrific wave of violence, suffering, loss, distress. As we follow their escape routes, we are overwhelmed, aghast. Our hearts are crushed along with theirs. These are not narratives wherein everyone comes through nicely with merely a scratch, rescued in the 11th hour. No, they are stories based on real children, composites of true refugee accounts, and as such they are strewn with enormous tragedy.

Yet it’s these very stories, so bleak and monstrous one cannot fathom experiencing them, that we comfortable ones must face, hear, acknowledge, mourn, that motivate us to live with sacrificial love and empathy, that cause a welling up of longing to be one of the compassionate ones in our world.

Cubans flee Havana, August 1994

Are you saturated with bad news from the current daily news cycle and feel you cannot bear to read something dark and depressing? Take heart. Because in the darkest moments, that is when Gratz ushers in the sunstreaked twists that’ll leave you reaching for a tissue. It’s not the onslaught of evil that made me weep, but the moments when gutwrenching depths of love, tough-won tenderness, pierced-heart kindness, reach into the morass of misery to bring redemption, mercy, and rescue.

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary, 2015

Gratz hopscotches back and forth between the three narratives so that we track the journeys of all three families throughout the novel. He then orchestrates a final movement in which the disparate lives impact one another in surprising, profound ways. Here is the hard won kernel of hope, goodness, humanity, here at “the end of all things” as Frodo and Sam would say.

Obviously timely. Highly recommended for ages 13 through adult. Be aware — if my review hasn’t cued you in already — there’s a boatload of grief and violence here, so be wise in handing this to younger readers.

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the boys who challenged hitler cover imageThe Boys who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club, by Phillip M. Hoose
published in 2015 by Farrar Straus Giroux

I finally read this riveting non-fiction book about a group of WWII-era Danish schoolboys who intrepidly wreaked havoc on the occupying Nazi army while the rest of their countrymen meekly acquiesced. It’s a fabulous read, deeply-researched and strongly-written by an award-winning author.

Knud Pedersen was one of the leaders of the secret Churchill Club formed by a group of boys who admired the Norwegians for resisting the Germans and writhed in shame that their own Danish people did not likewise defy them. Pedersen was alive

Phillip Hoose and Knud Pedersen

Phillip Hoose and Knud Pedersen

when Hoose began researching this book. Their lengthy interviews provide much of the dramatic, insider information about the bold, dangerous actions the boys took against the Nazi occupiers which ultimately led to their arrest.

It’s a page-turner, and nearly unbelievable. The commitment of these guys is stunning, and the support of their parents after their arrest — the first they knew of their sons’ activity — is deeply thought-provoking for me as a parent.

Members of The Churchill Club

Members of The Churchill Club

Standing up for one’s beliefs and values, with a willingness to suffer dire consequences, is a heady notion. In this case, the boys’ actions were heroically brave, and eventually it was they who inspired the wider Danish resistance movement to arise. Today, though, I wonder if we would be appalled at this level of covert, risky, literally-explosive behavior by self-directed teenage boys. Certainly we would bitterly condemn these actions by some groups, in pursuit of some causes. That leads to some provocative questions, of course, and makes this an ideal choice for book club discussions.

It’s no secret that teens can play monumentally-decisive, the boys who challenged hitler photo illustrationhonorable, and impressive roles in society. To what lengths are we willing to let them go to accomplish this? How does our infatuation with safety affect roles teens are allowed to play? How do we encourage kids to act on their own consciences, without sanctioning utterly foolhardy, impulsive, or wrong-headed thinking? Those are a few of the questions that rattled around my mind as I read this amazing account.

Rest assured, the narrative in the book does not touch on these issues at all. Rather, Hoose gives us 165 gripping pages of high-stakes espionage, audacious sabotage, and shocking imprisonment, introducing us to an inspiring, cool-headed, determined set of boys who left an indelible mark on the world. Knud and his compatriots are definitely worth meeting.

Ages 13 through adult.

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When I was a child, my Swede-Finn grandfather carved an exasperatingly difficult wooden puzzle. When it is all put together, it looks like this:

wooden puzzle

Separately, the pieces look somewhat like this:

L46AA pieces

I could never put it together, but my older brother could, and watching it happen was like a magic show every time.

To begin with, gaping holes were everywhere. The weird-shaped pieces wobbled in their places so if he didn’t hold them just right, they fell hqdefaultapart like Humpty Dumpty. Fitting them together in convoluted positions, there was a moment in the process when the right piece slid into an impossible slot and — whoa! — it was a solid figure. Then, zip, zap, the final couple of pieces fit easily — I could even put the last two in! — and there it was. Splendid and whole.

So — that’s the feel of this new novel, Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Disparate pieces in the end fitting together perfectly, amazingly, like a magic puzzle. So satisfying!

Echo cover imageEcho: A Novel, by Pam Muñoz Ryan; decorations by Dinara Mirtalipova
published in 2015 by Scholastic Press

It’s sort of a hybrid fairy tale-historical fiction story, set in an inventive format.

We start in about 1865 with a peek into the world of a young boy named Otto. A strange thing happens to Otto as he reads a curious fairy tale of a wicked king, his three fair daughters’ plight, a witch’s curse…

 …and a magic harmonica.

Watch that harmonica, for it is the link — the integral puzzle piece –Hohner harmonica– for this intricately-crafted novel.

Our story then drops into the lives of three children who each occupy about one-third of the book:

Story One tells of a misfit boy in 1933 Germany. We watch as he and his family members grapple with Naziism in differing ways. Friedrich’s inner world swirls with music. His peculiar habit of conducting the melodies he hears in his head brings him no end of harassment. Will the hateful conformity gripping Germany destroy him and his family?

a school harmonica band from Galway

a school harmonica band from Galway

Story Two takes place in 1935 Pennsylvania, where two brothers, Mike and Frankie, languish in an orphanage. Finally given a home by a wealthy old woman,  Mike is especially thrilled to see her grand piano, for now he can pursue the music he loves. Yet it seems this coldhearted woman doesn’t really want them. What is in store for these brothers?

HohnerHarmonicaBrochure2 from ewkauctions dot 0catch dot comStory Three jumps ahead to 1942. In southern California, Ivy Lopez’s family moves onto the farm of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp. Ivy’s dreams for her new life are bitterly splintered as she encounters dumbfounding racism. Her haven is in the school orchestra with its warmhearted conductor. Yet ugly suspicions and reprisals threaten to ruin everything.

As I said, a harmonica weaves its way through each of these stories. Isn’t that so surprising?!  And in a final chapter, in New York City, the harmonica is the keyHohnerCinderellaStampLG to the well-being of everyone we meet on the journey. That’s an extraordinary and most unusual premise, and Ryan’s skill at weaving these stories together will amaze you.

The main characters are all about 11 or 12 years old and although the tensions of Nazi Germany and racism are integral to large sections of the book, it is never grim or unduly heavy. It’s a long novel, at almost 600 pages. My thought is that it would make a fantastic choice especially for young, voracious readers. Many of you are always on the look out for something meaty, well-written, and challenging, yet with themes and emotions appropriate for independent readers even only 7-10 years old. This is it.

It’s a great read which will grab the imagination and attention of kids ages 7-13ish (my guess), and introduce them to some key historical subjects they will want to explore more. Beautifully decorated pages echoing the cover artwork set the fairy-tale-esque parts of the novel apart. The rest of the book is not illustrated.

Lots of fabulous discussion fodder for a book club as well. Grab it this summer for a vacation read.

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